How Late Night Fared in First Shows Without Audience

Seth Meyers on Late Night NBC, Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show NBC and Stephen Colbert on The Late Show CBS-Split-H 2020
NBC (2); CBS

Late-night hosts on Thursday confronted how the coronavirus pandemic was affecting their programs.

The New York City-based Late Show With Stephen Colbert, Late Night With Seth Meyers and Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon all taped without audiences on Thursday night and, it was announced late Thursday, all three shows have shut down production. The earliest new shows could air is March 30. Indeed, Meyers noted at the top of Thursday's "Closer Look" segment that not only had the NBC show decided to do away with an audience, but also, after guests didn't want to come in, he and his team decided to cancel the show but still do the pre-written "Closer Look" segment, which he presented dressed down in a blue button-up shirt without a tie or suit jacket for "casual Thursday." The Los Angeles-based Jimmy Kimmel Live!, guest hosted by former Democratic presidential candidate and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, also went without an audience.

Fellow New York-based program, The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, took on the latest developments in the pandemic and bid farewell to their audience as they plan to proceed without one on Monday. The L.A.-based Late Late Show With James Corden will also broadcast without audiences starting Monday, as Corden sought to reassure viewers amid the spread of the disease.

Meyers dedicated his latest "Closer Look" segment to the pandemic and President Donald Trump's response to it.

"We're in this weird moment right now where it's difficult for the media and public health experts to convey the severity of what's happening without sounding hysterical," he began. "It's like being the one person in a horror movie who knows they're in a horror movie."

While discussing Trump's address, Meyers poked fun at the president's demeanor and attempt to come off as confident. Meyers added that Trump "got his own policies wrong, forcing the White House to issue several clarifications after the speech." During the speech, Trump incorrectly announced that there was a travel ban to Europe.

"This is an address to the nation from the Oval Office and they're backpedaling like a husband who accidentally called his wife's friend hot," he joked.

"You can't build a wall to keep out a virus unless you're willing to build 300 million walls around each and every American," said Meyers.

The host also noted that Trump called the pandemic a "foreign virus" during the speech, which he said is "part of a racist playbook Trump picked up from the right-wing media." News coverage followed of TV hosts blaming China for the coronavirus.

"Here's an easy tip to follow during this pandemic: Don't be racist. Also, don't be dumb," said Meyers. "If we're gonna start changing the names of every bad thing to reflect the country where it started, then we should probably rename the KFC Double Down the 'American Heart Attack Sandwich.'"

After touching on the difficulty to access testing for the coronavirus in the United States, Meyers shared that Trump plans to take food stamps away from those in need on April 1. "All jokes aside, he's a terrible person," said the host.

"Our government is massively failing us at a time when the nation is looking for guidance, so now it's up to the media, public health officials and individuals to take this seriously, practice caution and lead where the president is failing," he concluded.

Fallon began Thursday's Tonight Show by addressing why his audience was empty.

"As of this morning, we planned to do the show with a full audience, but as the day progressed and the more we thought about it, we and NBC decided it would be smarter to not have an audience in order to do our part to help decrease the spread of the coronavirus," said Fallon.

The host said that he is "confused and freaked out" about the pandemic, noting that Trump's speech "didn't help."

"But what I do know is that when we are there for each other, we're at our best. And I am here for you. We are here for you," he said.

During his monologue, Fallon took aim at Trump's address. "The last time Trump spoke from the Oval Office, it was about his plans to build his border wall," he said. "Which means in two years the coronavirus should be about 10 percent taken care of."

"But Trump wanted to give a speech to reassure the nation that that everything is gonna be okay, and I think it worked," Fallon continued. "Today the stock market only dropped 2,000 points."

The host also pointed out that Trump had difficulty pronouncing the word "continuing" during his address. "It sounded like his tongue is quarantined from his mouth," joked Fallon.

On The Late Show, Colbert explained that staffers were sitting in for the audience due to the coronavirus.

"You don't want to be part of the hysteria, but you also want to act with an abundance of caution," he said.

Colbert explained that all of the New York City late night shows planned to go on without audiences beginning next week, though the CBS show learned that they would be taping without an audience just hours before filming.

The host noted that he previously filmed without an audience when he interviewed Eminem and brushed up on his hosting skills when he secretly took over a public-access show in Michigan before his official Late Show hosting debut.

"The most breaking news for me was when I learned that because of the coronavirus, all of Broadway was shutting down tonight. That's another reason why we don't have an audience," he said of the show, which films in a Broadway theater. "Frankly, it's a little sad because those Broadway shows had already been working on new precautions to keep the audience safe." A mock clip from a West Side Story rehearsal showed two actors performing in hazmat suits.

While discussing Trump's European travel ban, Colbert shared that a former Department of Homeland Security official said that plan was "pointless" because the virus has already spread to the United States.

"This virus is already here. It's like in a horror movie. Somebody hearing the killer is already inside the house and responding with, 'Oh no, I better go lock all of the doors. Then I'll just leave this axe on the bathroom sink as I take a shower,'" joked Colbert.

Over on The Late Late Show, Corden addressed the "scary time" due to the coronavirus.

"It feels like the news cycle is moving at a rate that none of us have ever experienced before," he said. "I'm sure a lot of you are feeling frightened, you feel vulnerable at the moment and we want to take a minute to say, just know that you are not alone in any of this. We are all feeling the same thing."

He noted that it's important for everyone to listen to the instructions about hygiene, staying home if you don't feel well and taking time to look after yourself.

As for the planned studio-audience-free episodes, Corden said, "I'm used to doing the show without a television audience, but normally there's an audience here in the studio."

"We love you so much and we're gonna be here every night trying to make you laugh and trying to bring a bit of light and levity to your day whenever we can," the host added.

Buttigieg took over hosting duties on Jimmy Kimmel Live, which also featured an empty audience.

"Due to public health concerns over the coronavirus — we have canceled the studio audience tonight. But a few kind Kimmel staffers and some friends, my husband Chasten are here instead — we’re gonna have a great time. Everyone is spread apart at the CDC-recommended distance," he said during his opening monologue. "This was not our plan. We just decided this a few hours ago. And it’s disappointing, because as you all know, I love to crowd surf. It’s kinda my thing." 

He then joked that the empty audience of the show was similar to Trump's inauguration. "But when you don't have a real audience — you have to fake one, just like Trump's inauguration," said Buttigieg.

The guest host took a moment to offer encouragement to those who are concerned about the coronavirus. He ensured that "the only way we're going to get through this crisis is with unity." Buttigieg added, "So let's do this together." 

Noah also addressed why The Daily Show would be moving forward without an audience for a while.

Standing in front of a piano, the host explained that the show will not have an audience beginning on Monday. "Which means you guys in the audience are the last ones to get coronavirus from us," he said.

Noting that the audience is the heart of the show, Noah said that he was dedicating a song to those in the room.

"Is it still a joke if no one laughs at it/ Am I still a host if I'm just standing in an empty room?" Noah asked during the song. "Time for social distancing/ Pack your things and go/ Just know that I'll be waiting/ For you to come back to the show."

"To the ones who stood/ And the ones who clapped," he sang. "I'll even give a shoutout to the haters/ Who just sat there and never laughed."

Throughout the song, Noah noted different types of audience members that he will miss, including those that explain the jokes to their peers and people with "weird ass laughs."

On Sunday, John Oliver kicked off Last Week Tonight by noting that "this will not be our usual show" because there is no audience and they weren't filming in their usual studio. "Partly because we do like to shake things up a bit whenever we can and also partly because our actual studio might be full of coronavirus," he explained. Oliver added that the studio they film in, at CBS' broadcast center in New York, and the show's office building both had confirmed cases of the virus.

Noting that the show's staff has been working from home, Oliver shared that they were taping the episode with a limited crew on a "white void set." He added, "It kind of looks like the place movie characters go when they've just died."

In light of the pandemic, Last Week Tonight is shutting down production for the time being after Sunday's episode.

March 16, 9:18 a.m. This story has been updated with John Oliver's audience-free Sunday broadcast.